Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Talking leadership with Commerce CFO Ellen Herbst

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Ellen Herbst, who joined the government in 2005 after two decades in various private-sector leadership positions, is the chief financial officer and assistant secretary of administration at the Department of Commerce. She oversees matters dealing with the budget, financial management, strategic planning and performance management.

In an interview with Tom Fox, Herbst discussed the challenges and her priorities in managing the department, including supporting employees and reforming the hiring process.

What was your first job in government?

Director of the National Technical Information Service, one of the operating units in Commerce. It’s not a well-known organization, but it was a nice entry into the federal government. After years in the private sector, coming into a new, more entrepreneurial environment where you have to go out and essentially sell people on the value of what you’re doing and get paid for it, was an excellent start for me.

What are your current responsibilities?

It’s a pretty broad portfolio. In addition to the typical CFO role in financial management, budget and internal controls, my job includes mission-support services such as human resources, acquisition, security and facilities. My role is really focused on getting things done and how to get them done better. That’s kind of my brand: Driving toward outcomes and results.

What are your top management priorities?

We have several initiatives aimed at investing in our people and their development, and providing our employees with better tools and work environments so that they can be successful. We have a shared service initiative, and that’s an area that we’re looking at within HR, acquisition, IT and financial management.

We are engaged in a multi-year renovation of our headquarters building, a massive undertaking that certainly calls on our best project management and risk management abilities to keep things moving forward. We are also looking at modernization of many of our IT systems, including our financial system. And across our department, we’re engaged in a massive employee engagement push.

What’s proving to be the biggest management challenge?

This is very biased toward my personal philosophy, but to me, our most important asset is our people. We are seeking to improve our support for employees, as well as attracting and retaining the best and the brightest in the federal government. We have to make it easier for people to get through the process of getting hired. It’s doable, but we have to do the hard work.

Where do you spend most of your time?

I’d say it is one-third high level oversight of the operations, one third managing our longer-term projects, and one-third interacting with my colleagues around policy issues.

Do you have any time management tips?

In this job, you have a lot of people who want a piece of your time. You have to make decisions based on what needs your contribution most. We have to say no to a lot of requests. I’m a big believer in balancing urgent, short-term things versus the longer-term important stuff. It’s hard to do, but it’s something we work on.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made as a manager and what did you learn from it?

I’m results-driven and when I want to make a big change that requires real culture change, I tend to underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes. You can make surface-level changes that last while you’re on the job, but it you want something to stick, it takes more effort up front.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Own your own career. You should care more about your career than anyone else, and you need to invest in yourself to be competitive.

Do you have a favorite book?

Yes. The honest answer is based on the number of the times I reread it: It’s the Lord of the Rings series.

What's something that folks would find surprising to know about you?

The first vehicle I ever drove was my dad’s John Deere tractor.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on May 12, 2015 at 11:46 AM

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